Category Archives: reading as a writer

To Sex Scene or Not to Sex Scene

Sex scenes can be truly difficult to write and write well so that they move the story forward or reveal character or both. The question I usually ask myself — how does this scene reveal character or move the story forward? — before I decide to include a sex scene or not doesn’t really apply, I’ve discovered, if you’re writing bodice-ripper style romance novels. Then the question becomes more about how well to write the scene — how much of the physical action to include vs. the emotional action — and if an explicit sex scene is consistent with your characters’ beliefs and behavior. I’d also question whether or not the sex is gratuitous, because after all, sex does sell.

This reminds me of an experience I had years ago with a movie called Die Hard starring Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman. The first time I saw this movie was on TV. It had been edited for length and content, but I didn’t think about the parts that I were missing. The version I saw on TV was highly entertaining — suspenseful, twisty, and really fun. Then I decided to buy my own copy of the movie for my movie library. I purchased what was available at the time, looking forward to seeing this fun movie again. When I viewed it, I discovered all the parts that had been edited out for the TV broadcast — primarily explicit violence — and was startled by how little the edited parts added to the story or character development. In other words, I would not have missed those edited parts if they hadn’t been included.

Sex scenes are similar. Sometimes sexual tension or the suggestion of sex going on behind the scenes is far more effective because they don’t stop the action or forward momentum of the story. And they’re not nearly as boring. I’ve now read two historical romance novels in which the authors chose to stop the forward momentum of the story and character development to have the romantic leads have sex with each other for 100+ pages in various ways, in various places, and with a varying degree of explicitness — and nothing else. The story just stops. And after about 15 pages of this, it gets really boring. At least for me.

The most recent novel I read, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, included explicit sexual violence, including rape, against the main female character. This historical bodice ripper takes place in 1743 in the Scottish Highlands where the men are depicted to be far from sophisticated or considerate — as far as they are concerned, a wife is their property and they can do whatever they want to her and she cannot complain about it. Loving a woman essentially means fucking her whenever and however they want. At least, that was the message I understood from this particular historical novel. It really disappointed me. I got to the point where I thought that really, Gabaldon was a good writer and it was a shame she was wasting her skill on these scenes that went nowhere. But sex sells.

While Jamie and Claire were characters with a lot of potential, I thought all but a few of the sex scenes could have been cut in favor of focusing on the development of their emotional and intellectual intimacy, how they get to know each other as people rather than only as two bodies. The last 100 pages of the book gives them a wonderful opportunity to deepen the emotional connection and trust between them, and to perhaps broaden Jamie’s realizations that there’s far more to Claire than he thought. There are glimmers of this possibly happening, but I did not see it coming to the fore and going to another level for their relationship.

I know that there’s a market/audience for this type of bodice ripper romance and perhaps Gabaldon and other writers in that genre feel a responsibility to give their readers what they apparently enjoy. Maybe that’s fine, as long as it’s well written.  I know now more than ever that I am not a member of that audience. To me, all those sex scenes could have been cut and not hurt the story or character development at all, just as the gratuitous violence in Die Hard could be cut and not have the movie story suffer at all. To me as a reader, stopping the story for page after page of sex scenes isn’t titillating but boring.

This reading experience has certainly shone a new light on the issue of writing sex scenes. It’s no longer a matter of how to write them well, but whether to include them at all. The question still remains: how does the scene move the story forward or reveal character or both? And I’d add the question: how does the scene (or scenes) affect the pacing of the story’s momentum?

Dear Stephen King

My “Office”

As I’ve been working on the first revision of Perceval’s Shadow, I’ve been feeling inadequate, terrified, and drowning in a writing ocean in which I’d chosen to swim (why did I? I hate swimming). Thinking I could use encouragement and support, I decided to read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. This book had resided in my bookcase for years. I don’t read self-help books, and books on writing remind me of self-help books. But I’d read a favorable review years ago, and writer friends had spoken highly of it, so I’d bought the book and then left it in my bookcase where I could eye it and wonder what Stephen King could possibly have to say about writing.

Now I know. I finished reading it this morning, pleased that I felt so reassured in my own creative process as a result. Stephen King recommends Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and that alone convinced me that he knows far more than I’d expected about writing. It’s my Bible too. He also confesses to the same terror and feelings of inadequacy at times when facing what he’d written, and at the same time exulting in the joy he feels when he’s writing. I can relate. I am the happiest when I’m writing fiction.

I admit, I’m surprised by this book. But hadn’t you read any of his books? Yes. I read ‘Salem’s Lot the summer it came out in paperback. My brother had bought it and consumed it in one afternoon. We were living at our summer house on a lake as we did every summer, so visits to the city library happened once a week when my mother drove into town to buy groceries. I’d exhausted my pile of library books and was looking for something to read until the next library run when I found ‘Salem’s Lot on the sofa in front of the fireplace. So, I read it. I hated it. Hated it. I’m not a fan of vampires despite admiring Bram Stoker’s classic work. Because of that experience, I’ve stayed away from Stephen King’s books ever since.

It wasn’t snobbishness, either. I admired King’s chutzpah and his support of writing and writers. I loved that he chose to live in Maine. I just didn’t think his books were for me. I do not enjoy reading horror stories. Then I saw the movie The Shawshank Redemption and loved it. A friend mentioned that Stephen King had written the book on which it was based. No! Really? You mean Stephen King writes other kinds of books besides horror? But I still stayed away. It wasn’t until a friend recommended Mr. Mercedes that I decided to give King another try. I loved that book and have since also read Finders Keepers. And then I was quite surprised to learn that he’d written Hearts in Atlantis. Hmmmm.  I probably still won’t be reading his horror books, though.

In On Writing, King starts with a large autobiographical section to show the reader where he comes from as a writer. There were surprises: his alcoholism and drug addiction, for example, as well as some pithy description of his job in a laundry. And like me, he began writing early in his life. Like me, he feels happiest writing, as hard as the job can be at times. But unlike me, he enjoyed publication success early. In the second section, King explores writing and how to do it. This was the section that most reassured me because most of what he suggests and/or recommends are things that I already do and have done for years. I was surprised that he only does maybe 3 drafts of a piece, though. Really? Not sure I believe that. In the final, much shorter, section, King describes being hit by a van while out for a walk and the aftermath. I cried through most of this section. I know what it’s like to face major health issues, to be in a hospital, to have a long recuperation, to deal with massive physical pain. I am happy, however, that King returned to writing, specifically On Writing. It has energized me and made my imagination ecstatic.

Dear Stephen King, thank you.

In Celebration of Summer Reading (as a Writer)

Canada has turned its northwest wind toward Minnesota and we are finally enjoying real Minnesota summer days with dewpoints in the 50’s, temperatures in the upper 70’s and low 80’s, and that wonderful cool Northwest breeze. This weather brings a flood of memories — not of baseball in the sun, swimming, playing tennis or boating. No. It brings a flood of memories of reading, usually outdoors in the shade either on a porch or under a tree, the sounds of swimming, water-skiing and boating on the lake in the background, a lawn mower grazing with a buzz nearby, and the smell of suntan lotion laced with coconut oil. Urban noise pollution wasn’t a part of my childhood, but a lake house, a library card, and lots of free time were.

Today, I’m reading a classic science fiction novel published in 1977 that reminds me of the mid-1970’s rage for disaster movies — Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. It’s a fat paperback — my favorite kind — full of characters I can relate to in some way, caught on a planet in the path of an ancient comet.  Will they all survive a direct hit? What will that hit be like? And who cares just how plausible the premise is, right?

Summer reading. Book marketers go immediately to the stereotypical beach reads: thrillers, mysteries, more thrillers, and action adventure stories set in lost worlds of the past or far future. What are your favorite summer reads? Is there really such a thing?

I have a particularly potent memory of one week in August when I was in junior high school. My family was at our lake house. I had been to the library and checked out a pile of books, among them, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a collected works omnibus of Sherlock Holmes stories. That August week was unusual for its weather: cool, overcast, often foggy from the humidity, with especially damp chilly nights. We had built a fire in the fireplace and hunkered down inside. I read on the squishy soft sofa upholstered with pink flowers on a dark green background about 6 feet in front of the fire, engrossed in The Hound of Baskervilles. The weather outdoors with its cool enveloping mist created the perfect environment in which to read this scary story. And wild hounds could not have roused me from that sofa.

When I was ten, I discovered the romantic suspense of Mary Stewart in her novel The Moon-Spinners. It was blistering hot outdoors, too hot to sit in the sun or go boating, and after a swim, I would curl up on the rocking lounger (upholstered in dark green vinyl) on the front porch and read about the rugged landscape of Crete, the heat of the Mediterranean sun, the beautiful beach, a small inn run by a Greek family and the mystery surrounding a young Englishman named Mark. From that summer on, I was convinced that the British were the masters of mystery stories.

The year after I graduated college, my first year living in Minnesota, I picked up a book with a strange title: Watership Down by Richard Adams. It was the title that caught my eye. Once I began reading, I couldn’t put that book down, and to this day I’m still amazed that a novel about rabbits could have so powerfully held me in its grasp. A friend had invited me to spend a week with her and her family at their lake cabin in the north woods and I took the book along with me. Now I associate that specific location in northern Wisconsin with reading Adams’ novel.

When summer rolls around, I feel my attention as a writer and a reader circle away from anything heavy or philosophical and toward fun. And fun means mysteries primarily, although this summer I’ve added a science fiction disaster thriller to the mix. In addition to the Niven/Pournelle novel, so far this summer I’ve read The Private Patient by P. D. James, Death and the Maiden by Gerald Elias, Finding Moon by Tony Hillerman, and Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart.

What have you been reading this summer?  Any recommendations?

Is Anyone Out There?

Photo: NASA

One of my lifelong interests is stars, planets, galaxies, and everything about them. Today, I saw an article about seeing the light from galaxies that were formed over 3 billion years ago. They are so far away from us, it has taken 3 billion years for their light to reach us. Distance in the universe often confounds my imagination. I was thinking, in response to that article, that the blinking lights in the night sky that have always fascinated me are not necessarily single stars but probably entire galaxies. Those tiny blinking lights. Does sentient life in those tiny blinking lights ever look to their sky and see us?

As a writer, I often feel like a tiny blinking light in a massively gigantic universe, and I’ve struggled to find how to be inviting as a writer and encourage readers to read my stories. After all, as a tiny blinking light I am most likely an entire galaxy of planets, stars, black holes, and stardust. And I’m really not 3 billion years away, I’m right here. My stories are right here, too. But how would I ever know if anyone came to visit?

Is anyone out there?

Hope Clark, in her Funds for Writers newsletter several weeks ago, wrote about her perception that nobody is reading anymore. She has that perception because she’s not receiving the responses that she used to receive — at her blog, via email, with book reviews. If people are reading, she’s concluded, they’ve stopped “talking” about it.

Photo: Marina Shemesh

She has a point, but I’m not certain that I agree completely. It’s only been in the last 10 years or so that I’ve considered responding to an author about a book of theirs I’d read. Before that, I read and read, and it never occurred to me to try to reach out to an author to let him or her know how much I enjoyed their work. Now that I’m an author myself, I know how it feels to read a person’s review of my work, or to have a reader comment here, or to send me an email. It’s wonderful to know that my work has been read. Like most writers, I don’t like writing and sending my stories into the black hole at the center of our galaxy and never knowing what happened. Up until 10 years ago, though, I would have said isn’t that to be expected?

Now, we have so many ways to connect with people whether or not they are strangers.  One of the things that I learned over 10 years ago — and it made me want to find a cave somewhere in which to write — was that writers must be accessible in some way to publicize their writing. Traditional publishers expect writers to market their work as well. So writers need websites and/or blogs. They need author pages at all the places online where books are sold, and they need to be an active presence on GoodReads, Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media they can find time to join and be a presence on. It exhausts me just thinking about it.

One of the things I decided to do, though, to be a presence as a writer is to write reviews of books I’ve been reading. I read voraciously — new and old books, fiction, nonfiction, good and bad. I post my reviews at GoodReads, and then if the book is relatively new, I try to also post the review where others will see it and can immediately buy it, like Amazon and B&N. What a difference it would make if all readers took a half hour (or less) after reading a book and reviewed it online? It’s not a big deal, either, and doesn’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning review. Just what you thought of the book and why, and if you’d recommend it or not.

Writers will know then that their work hasn’t disappeared down a black hole, and they are not alone, a tiny blinking light far away in a black sky.

Re-reading a Classic: “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Today in Minnesota, our weather resembles an Alabama summer day. The Finches would recognize this kind of weather and the storms that follow it. While re-reading Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird recently, I was aware of the weather that she described, especially during the summer. They didn’t have air conditioning in 1935 in Alabama. No one moved very fast when the sun floated high in the summer sky, the temperature was north of 90, and the humidity interfered with normal evaporation. But children seem unaffected by weather extremes, especially the children in Lee’s novel.

The first time I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, I was only a little older than Scout Finch. At that time, I was also under the influence of the movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. We had gone as a family to see the movie, and afterward my parents allowed me to read the novel, one of the first adult novels I’d read. In my young mind, I wanted Atticus to be my father, Jem my brother, and I wanted to be Scout. As a family we talked about the movie, but I didn’t talk about the book with anyone. Talking about it could dilute its power I thought.

Reading Lee’s novel as an adult and a writer is a much different experience.  From the first sentence I was acutely aware of the distinctive narrative voice Lee created to tell this story. I knew immediately that it was an adult Scout although there is no clue as to how old she is when she’s telling the story. There’s also no clue as to her audience. So it is as if she’s speaking directly to me as the reader. This technique was pure brilliance for this particular story. It gave Lee the opportunity to scrutinize the adult world of that time and place through an intelligent child’s eyes, one sensitive to her brother’s moods and curious about everything and everyone. Jean Louise, “Scout,” Finch is by far one of those memorable characters that can follow a reader for years after completing the novel.

Atticus is another. Far from perfect — and Scout notes his imperfections when she notices them — he’s a man who’s a single father at a time that would have been unusual, and he doesn’t seem to have any plans to marry again anytime soon. This was something I loved about him this time around. He stands up to his sister and anyone else who would try to tell him how to lead his life or suggest that it was time he marry again. And I loved the way he defended Calpurnia — the only mother Scout had ever known — as well as treated her with the utmost respect. When I was a kid, I thought Atticus was about as far different from my own father as any two people could get. But on this reading, I realized that they actually shared a similar philosophy about relating to others. With my father, that philosophy actually hid his deep prejudices from public view.

My favorite scenes in this book have followed me from childhood until now. The first is the scene of a conversation Scout has with Atticus on their front porch in the evening of a day that has been particularly trying for Scout at school. Atticus explains to Scout the notion of empathy — imagining yourself in another person’s skin and his life to understand his point of view better. Another is the extended scene of the mad dog when Calpurnia calls Atticus home to deal with it and how surprised Scout and Jem are at their father’s hidden talent. You can live with someone and still not know everything about him or her. The scene in front of the jail at midnight when Atticus guards Tom Robinson from a potential lynch mob, and Scout, Jem, and Dill show up to protect Atticus. The school scene when the children are back in school after Tom Robinson’s trial and Cecil Jacobs does a current events report on Hitler’s persecution of the Jews in Germany. The teacher, without a hint of irony, explains to the class that it’s wrong to persecute the Jews and it would not happen in America because America is a democracy, and the persecution comes from being prejudiced against the Jews, and just how wrong it is to be prejudiced against anyone in America because America is a democracy. What a sly writer Harper Lee was! And to this day, I still see a very young Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, standing in the corner of Jem’s room.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons via MGN

Harper Lee’s writing inspired me to work hard at my own writing during the last two weeks. It has made me take special notice of the narrative voice I’ve chosen for different pieces, and how I’ve created the tone of the work. It’s made me think about how she accomplished the scenes she included and why she structured them the way she did. But the most important effect of this novel on me from this reading is feeling a kinship with Harper Lee as a writer, understanding what she probably went through during the writing process, and admiring and respecting this inspiring novel all the more.